Listen carefully, my child, to your master’s precepts, and incline the ear of your heart. Receive willingly and carry out effectively your loving father’s advice, that by the labor of obedience you may return to Him from whom you had departed by the sloth of disobedience.
To you, therefore, my words are now addressed, whoever you may be, who are renouncing your own will to do battle under the Lord Christ, the true King, and are taking up the strong, bright weapons of obedience.
And first of all, whatever good work you begin to do, beg of Him with most earnest prayer to perfect it, that He who has now deigned to count us among His children may not at any time be grieved by our evil deeds. For we must always so serve Him with the good things He has given us, that He will never as an angry Father disinherit His children, nor ever as a dread Lord, provoked by our evil actions, deliver us to everlasting punishment as wicked servants who would not follow Him to glory.
Today marks the beginning of the re-reading of the Rule (I try to follow the custom of reading through it three times a year). We start with the Prologue, whose opening lines provide for the title of this blog.
St. Benedict sets out from the start that the Christian life is a life of discipleship, of master and disciple. The Christian, if he is to walk the straight and narrow, is not to make it up as he goes along, to pick and chose according to his personal whims. It is not a one man show. No; the disciple is to learn from his master; he is to receive what his master has given him, which in turn was given to him. “The disciple is not above his master: but every one shall be perfect, if he be as his master.” (Lk 6:40). We are to respect the master, to respect his experience because he has already walked down the path which we have now before us. Yet lest we think this master is cold and heartless, we are told from the start that he is a loving father – he is to help us return to the Father of Mercies.
As I mentioned in one of my previous posts, it was the realization of this basic principle of the Christian life (which seems to be much neglected) which brought me to the Benedictines: the need for guidance.
Our father among the saints speaks much about obedience. It is not by chance that he tells us to listen, for listening and obeying have a common root in Latin. One who listens well obeys well. But more than the physical ear, St. Benedict would have us attune our spiritual ear, the “ear of the heart”, heart being understood as the embodiment of all that we are, and not in the modern sense of the merely sentimental, the affective. But why this emphasis on obedience? Since we are now the Lord’s children by virtue of our mystical engrafment in Christ, His Only-begotten Son, through Baptism, since we share in His life, we are to be obedient as He was. The New Adam, who was obedient unto death to correct the mistake of Adam, who was disobedient – it is here that we are to properly understand obedience. One is to be obedient to the Lord, to submit one’s will, which was damaged by Original Sin, to Him. In submitting we will find our way back to Him; we will discover who we are really meant to be; persevering in obedience till the end the white stone shall be given to us and we will know our name. We are to hear the Word, the Logos, and to obey Him, to let our will be put in accord with His.
And if we are tempted to despair by the task before us, we are reminded that we are not Pelagians, that it does not depend upon us, but on the Lord, and that we should pray always to Him that He may bring to perfection our endeavours.
Though the Rule was written for monks, monasticism is, as D. Kirby OSB would say, “the Christian vocation writ large”. The Christian life is a battle, no matter your state in life. To tell yourself otherwise is to not want to see the truth. While the monks do battle in the cloister, we still in the world have our own struggles. Life’s vicissitudes may wear us down. We may delude ourselves into thinking that we are in control of our lives and that we know best; we may be tempted to cut corners to get ahead in life; we are full of pride and self-love, and easily feel offended when we are reminded of our littleness;… The list goes on and on.
The Christian life is martyrdom, the via crucis. For the majority of us in the Western world it will perhaps not be a red martyrdom, but a silent one, the silent witness of the Cross brought about in the daily mortifications – of our own chosing and those imposed upon us. The acts of asceticism and discipline that we may engage in in our spiritual life are so that we may listen better, and this is part of the battle as well.
St. Benedict tells us that disobedience is easy (the fruit of “sloth”) and obedience is difficult (it is a “labor”), but we must pray constantly. While the threat of Hell and punishment might seem outmoded to modern sensibilities, we will see later on in the Rule a very obvious truth: that each stage of spiritual development has its own motivation. One is to grow in love, to pass from loving the Lord out of fear of punishment to loving Him because He is. But sometimes the fear of damnation is just the motivation we need on those days that nothing else seems to work, when we feel like giving up.
One thing to keep in mind is that while the Rule never mentions it explicitly (because for St. Benedict it is a given), the Mystical Body of Christ – the Church – is the backdrop for all of this. One may follow the Rule, but one needs a sacramental life. With the constant bombardment of messages of self-sufficiency, the Holy Rule is a good reminder that we do not save ourselves.